The History That Matters

There’s actually an interesting discussion going round some conservative parts of the Internet about the meaning of history, and whether anyone can talk meaningfully — as President Obama frequently does — about being “on the right side of history.”

Near as I can tell, the conversation (if we can call it that) began here with this essay by Eliot Cohen over at The American Interest (which I cannot quote because I ran out of my three free articles for the last 30 days and didn’t save the actual text anywhere) and is taken up by this essay at The Atlantic by David Graham:

Barack Obama has always evinced a fascination with history. He announced his candidacy in Springfield, Illinois, recalling Abraham Lincoln. He modeled his own cabinet after Lincoln’s “team of rivals.” He has compared his own accomplishments to his predecessors, and he invited historians to the White House for private conversations about where he might fit within the pantheon of American leaders.

If Obama’s interests run toward history, so does his rhetoric. “It’s the answer that led those who have been told for so long by so many to be cynical, and fearful, and doubtful of what we can achieve to put their hands on the arc of history and bend it once more toward the hope of a better day,” he said the evening of his first election. Since then, the president has repeatedly deployed a series of phrases—especially “the right side of history” and “the wrong side of history”—that suggest a tortured, idealistic, and ultimately untenable vision of what history is and how it works.

Obama is not unique in this. Graham notes that both Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan also invoked “the right side of history” on more than one occasion, and I recall George W. Bush’s entire foreign policy predicated on the idea that there is a right side to history — American ideals and government — and a wrong side — everyone else.

Obama’s own fresh contribution to the genre is his invocation of “the arc of history.” It’s his adaptation of an older phrase, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice,” which was popularized by Martin Luther King Jr. but coined (evidently) a century earlier by Theodore Parker. Obama has mentioned “the arc of history” a dozen times since his election.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it imputes an agency to history that doesn’t exist. Worse, it assumes that progress is unidirectional. But history is not a moral force in and of itself, and it has no set course. Presuming otherwise embraces the dangerous tendency that the great English historian Herbert Butterfield dissected in his 1931 essay, The Whig Interpretation of History. Butterfield was writing about the inclination among certain historians to see the Reformation as a unalloyedly positive force—a secularizing, liberalizing movement that led inexorably to liberal democracy in the 20th century. Butterfield objected that this wasn’t at all how things worked. It was just a retrospective reading.

The discussion continued as Graham considered a response from Mark Tooley over at Juicy Ecumenism and Providence magazine (to which Rod Dreher contributed a bit):

Christmas is the ultimate reminder that Christians and all who pursue decency and humanity in a corrupt and vicious world are on the right side of history. We know He will make all the rough places smooth, and every valley shall be exalted. He came to us originally as a child, yet the government will be upon His shoulders. To align with the Baby Jesus is decidedly to be on the right side of history.

Tooley effectively, I think, describes what I consider to be the problem a little further up in his essay:

Most of American civil religion, borrowing partly from Whiggery, and mediated by once robust Mainline Protestantism, has assumed that constitutional democracy prevails against dictatorship in the world, with America spiritually and politically the model and champion. Supposedly recent USA military interventions, ostensibly contrived by neoconservatives, have discredited this metaphysical confidence. But the assumption of American democracy’s transcendly innate superiority is deeply embedded in our national soul. It wasn’t reduced, at least not for long, by the Vietnam War, or countless other mishaps across our history. For America as a whole, a largely unarticulated but heartfelt confidence in providential destiny persists.

Traditional Christians abandon the language of history at their peril. Scoffing at or dismissing appeals to the “right side of history” will only marginalize our cultural voice. It also ignores the dictates of our own faith. Isn’t God the Lord of history? Aren’t all designs against His plans doomed to failure? Won’t justice and truth, as cornerstones of His Kingdom, inevitably prevail, despite sin and human failure?

I’m not a fan of any notion of “right side” or “wrong side” of history. Cohen wrote, at length, of the faith many had in Marxism, and Nikita Kruschev’s confident assertions that the Soviet political and economic system will consign the liberal state to the dustbin of history.

I am especially critical of what Tooley describes as American Whiggism, or what might be otherwise called providence, and I think it’s important to remember this idea of providence — God at work in the secular history of the world in such a way that we can discern the will of God for the world in who wins and who loses political struggles — was primarily a deist idea. Where is God at work if the church itself no longer matters?

I have written before that history, in so far as we are talking about the history of nations, of peoples, of governments, and of struggles, is meaningless. (Don’t ask me where, I can’t find it easily today.) For Christians, this is true. History as we understand it — a story that tells us who we are — came to an end with the resurrection of Christ. We are a people formed by THAT story. Or we should be.

But Jesus didn’t stay good and safely dead. He also didn’t simply rise and disappear solely with a promise to come again someday. He has messily intervened in the life of his people. He struck Saul blind on the road to Damascus, appeared to Ananias in a dream, commanded Peter to eat, and dictated letters (and gave an incredible vision) to John in his island exile. He commanded Constantine, “In this sign you shall conquer!” He spoke to me at The World Trade Center on 9/11, telling me in the midst of fear, suffering, uncertainty, and death: “My love is all that matters, and this is who I am.” (Read the book!)

So, Christ intervenes in history. As Tooley notes, God is still with us, still acting, still inserting himself into the life of his people, into the lives of human beings.

As much as I hate to say it, history does, in fact, matter.

But which history?

The mistake believers in providence make — and perhaps Tooley is one of them — is looking upon our political struggles and seeing God at work, seeing God’s discernible, purposeful will for mankind. In ideological conflict, in national conflict, in war, is social and economic progress. It is an easy thing to do, especially if one looks at scripture as sees Israel primarily as a nation, then it is easy to believe God cares about the fate of nations.

I have long believed we need to take seriously the very likelihood Jesus did, in fact, command Constantine to conquer. It is, in some ways, no more at odds with Jesus than his commanding Peter to kill and eat. Biblical faith teaches us that God generally (though unpredictably) uses what God has at hand. God does not, as a rule, remake the world, or create ideal substance out of nothing, but constrains himself (mostly) to using no more and no less than what the world gives God to work with. Israel demands a monarchy, God laments Israel’s faithlessness, and then through Samuel warns Israel about that monarchy. God then gives Israel the very monarchy God said Israel should not want and would come to regret, and then makes promises of salvation and redemption through that monarchy.

Using Constantine to further the aims of the church — because Constantine was what was at hand — is perfectly in line with how we know Jesus (and God in Old Testament) faithfully works. (Such as when he chose Cyrus the King of Persia to be “the anointed one” or המשׁיה, to deliver Israel from exile.)

Where we go astray is thinking in terms of empire, rather than church, or nation, rather than church.

Because as the body of Christ, the church is the only moral actor whose deeds and fate in history matter. The history of this people Christ has called to follow, to preach and teach and baptize and make disciples, is the only history that tells us anything meaningful about God’s purpose for the world. Israel isn’t an εθνος, Israel is an εκκλησια1.

It also has to be remembered that the history of Israel in scripture is the history of faithlessness, failure, defeat, conquest, and exile. Christ’s church will have a Christ-Shaped story and an Israel-shaped history. It will have moments of glory, but it ends with the promised work of God — New Heaven and New Earth upon which a New Jerusalem is placed — and not the works of man. Providence is the story of nations, of the works of man — particularly the liberal-democratic, Anglo-American nation-state and the firmly believed in triumph of its government and governing promises — and as such is a theology of glory that cannot find meaning in set-back and defeat, much less conquest and exile. Providence has no idea what to do with a crucified savior, and thus cannot figure out how to make sense of a risen one.

I do believe there is much to be learned from human history, from the struggle of nations and ideals and movements. This history tells us much of folly and wisdom, of sin and even a little of kindness. It tells us some important things about who we are as human beings. But this history cannot tell us anything meaningful about what God wants or desires for us. It cannot tell us who we are as God’s people. It cannot tell us how we are redeemed, or how to live as God’s redeemed people. It is not the history that matters.

  1. Yes, I appreciate εκκλησια has political overtones. ↩︎

One thought on “The History That Matters

  1. Yeah, it’s quite strange that Christianity seems to flourish in the 3rd world. Places devoid of the “providence” of anglo-american “wisdom”. Not that it is in a “pure” state over there either. I saw a TV program a while ago about a negro “prophet” in South Africa. He was just a clone of US spirituality. Drove around in a limo with bodyguards, wore an expensive suit and “milked” his congregation.

    I guess God’s Kingdom is beyond poverty, wealth & power, can exist in any place & thrive or “die” in any place…

    The providence of driving a nice car in one place may be equivalent to getting a good feed in another.

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